Birthed in the bowels of the 1950’s segregationist south, school choice has never been about improving education. It is about white supremacy, profiting off taxpayers, cutting taxes, selling market based solutions and financing religion. School choice ideology has a long dark history of dealing significant harm to public education.
Market Based Ideology
Milton Friedman first recommended school vouchers in a 1955 essay. In 2006, he was asked by a conservative group of legislators what he envisioned back then. PRWatch reports that he said, “It had nothing whatsoever to do with helping ‘indigent’ children; no, he explained to thunderous applause, vouchers were all about ‘abolishing the public school system.”’ [Emphasis added]
Market based ideologues are convinced that business is the superior model for school management. Starting with the infamous Regan era polemic, “A Nation at Risk,” the claim that “private business management is superior” has been a consistent theory of education reform promoted by corporate leaders like IBM’s Louis Gerstner, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Wal-Mart’s Walton family, Bloomberg LP’s founder, Michael Bloomberg and SunAmerica’s Eli Broad. It is a central tenet of both neoliberal and libertarian philosophy.
Charles Koch and his late brother David have spent lavishly promoting their libertarian beliefs. Inspired by Friedman’s doyen, Austrian Economist Friedrich Hayek, the brothers agreed that public education must be abolished.
To this and other ends like defeating climate change legislation, the Kochs created the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This lobbying organization has contributing members from throughout corporate America. ALEC writes model legislation and financially supports state politicians who promote their libertarian principles.
Like the Walton family and Betsy DeVos, Charles Koch promotes private school vouchers.
What is the main motive behind the mega-rich spending to undermine public education? Professor Maurice Cunningham of the University of Massachusetts claims what they really want are “lower state and local taxes.”
John Arnold is the billionaire Enron trader who did not go to prison when that company collapsed. He has joined forces with the billionaire CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, to sell the nation on the portfolio model of school management. To achieve their goal, they created The City Fund. After its founding in 2018, Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Steve Ballmer all made significant contributions.
In brief, the portfolio model directs closing schools that score in the bottom 5% on standardized testing and reopening them as charter schools or Innovation schools. In either case, they will no longer come under the purview of an elected school board.
Because standardized testing only reliably correlates with family wealth, this system guarantees that schools in poor communities will all eventually be privatized.
In 2014, SFGATE reported, “Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who suggests that democratically elected school boards are the problem with public education, says they should be replaced by privately held corporations.”
When it came to privatizing schools, vouchers were a tough sell. Jeffry Henig of Teachers College noted to writer Jeff Bryant, “The Walton foundation itself was one of the early organizations to transition from vouchers to charters.” In an AlterNet article Bryant explained,
“Henig believes many conservatives view charter schools as a way to “soften the ground” for potentially more private options, though he isn’t entirely sure “the Waltons view charters as a Trojan Horse for eventually providing vouchers universally.’”
John Walton read “A Nation at Risk” and that set off his hyper focus on reforming public education. Throughout the 1990s he campaigned endlessly for new voucher legislation and saw his efforts repeatedly rebuffed. Shortly before his death in 2005, John joined Don Fisher and Buzz Woolley in establishing the Charter School Growth fund. Around the same time the Walton Family Foundation began financing charter school startups in communities across America.
No matter how stinking the thinking, a billionaires beliefs have influence. The billionaire push to privatize public education is based on at least four completely bogus ideas:
1 - “A Nation at Risk” was a misguided fraud but it is still the motivating prime point for corporate driven education “reform.” Former New York Times Education writer, Richard Rothstein states,
“A Nation at Risk based its analysis of declining student achievement entirely on average SAT scores which had dropped by about half a standard deviation from 1963 to 1980. But much of the decline had been due to the changing composition of SAT test takers — in the early 1960s, the preponderance of SAT test takers were high school students planning to apply to the most selective colleges. By 1983, the demographic composition of SAT test takers had mostly stabilized, and average SAT scores were again rising, not declining.”
2 – The growing belief among wealthy elites that elected school boards are the problem is ridiculous. Saying democracy is a discredited way to run publically financed organizations and elected boards should be replaced by privately run businesses is un-American and foolish.
3 - Market based ideologues religiously believe in Adam Smith’s invisible hand. They are sure comparative school performance will provide families with improving schools that are striving to win the market. These proponents trust that this system will efficiently remove low-performing schools. A 2015 paper notes,
“This idealized theory assumes that all consumers are equally desirable customers for which providers will compete … just because parents can voice a choice in the system does not mean they will get the choice they want. In New Orleans, the most desirable schools choose their students to a substantial extent.”
4 - Our present Secretary of Education is emblematic of people who believe it is terrible that public schools have replaced churches as the center of community life. Betsy and Dick DeVos have been using their Amway generated wealth to tear down the separation of church and state. They believe the public should provide vouchers to private religious schools and they promote home schooling which is popular in the evangelical Christian community.
Choice Drives Segregation by Race and Class
It is well known that integrated schools are beneficial for all races and classes and for the social development of society. Professor Peter Piazza’s “School Diversity Notebook” provides a short summary of the research validating this statement.
Data does not inform the decisions to segregate schooling. As Professor Piazza states, “Decisions to segregate are made in the gut or maybe (sadly) in the heart, but not in the head.”
From a Matt Barnum article about school integration:
‘“School integration didn’t fail,’ Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson, who has conducted some of the most far-reaching research on school integration, recently argued. ‘The only failure is that we stopped pursuing it and allowed the reign of segregation to return.”’
Adding perspective, Sonya Ramsey wrote “The Troubled History of American Education after the Brown Decision” for the American Historian which is made available by the Library of Congress. In that paper she reported,
“From 1954 to the late 1980s, the rate of black children attending white schools rose tremendously in the South, from 0 percent in 1954, to 43.5 percent by 1988, only declining after the dismantling of court ordered desegregation plans to 23.2 in 2011. The South remains the least segregated area of the nation. The current resegregation of the public school are due more to the declining support for desegregation by local districts, the federal government, and the Supreme Court. In 2007 Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated the following in his majority opinion in two court cases that used race in determining transfer policies and school plans to foster desegregation: “The way to stop race discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  This decision turned a blind eye to decades of racial discrimination in public schools and struck a deathblow to Brown. The federal government’s focus on assessment testing in the 1980s also placed less emphasis on enforcing desegregation.” [Note 17: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/29/washington/29scotus.html]
Today’s school choice advocates precisely echo the language and schemes created by southern segregationists in the 1950s.
Last year three researchers - Julian Vasquez Heilig from the University of Kentucky, T. Jameson Brewer from the University of North Georgia and Yohuru Williams from the University of St. Thomas – collaborated on a study of the segregating effects of charter schools. Their paper clearly documents that charter schools are accelerating resegregation.
In the literature search section of the study, they reported that the conservative oriented “American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conducted a study of the entire universe of charter schools in the United States concluding that parents were self-segregating along racial and class lines but that such segregation was simply a result of a ‘well-functioning education market.”’ [Emphasis added]
The researchers concluded that “Many of the nation’s charters can even be classified as “apartheid schools”—a term coined by UCLA Professor Gary Orfield for schools with a White student enrollment of 1 percent or less.” And “double segregation by race and class is higher in charter schools” than in public schools.
A personal 2019 study of Washington DC charter schools revealed that 64 of the 116 charter schools would be classified “apartheid schools” using Professor Orfield’s definition.
For their study, Heilig at al accessed the Common Core of Data (CCD) - the Department of Education's primary database on public elementary and secondary education in the United States. This data was brought together with census and zip code data to reveal related school site and community demographic data.
A common defense of charter schools is that they purposely serve highly segregated communities. However, the researchers discovered “even when comparing schools that are located near each other—that charter schools are more segregated than nearby public schools.”
The paper contained six tables revealing the magnitude of segregation comparing charter schools with public schools. The following is Table 4 from the study that details growing charter school segregation in major cities.